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Oklahoma Teachers Threaten Statewide Strike in Fall

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The largest teachers' union in Oklahoma is threatening to stage its first statewide strike next fall if the legislature fails to take "significant steps" to increase funding for public schools.

The House, however, has responded to the Oklahoma Education Association's challenge by passing legislation to bar teacher walkouts. The measure is pending in the Senate.

Delegates to the oea's annual assembly on April 7 voted overwhelmingly to authorize the union's board of directors to call on members to "withhold services" beginning Sept. 5 if the board deems the school-aid budget inadequate.

Bobby Johnson, the union's executive director, said the aim of the strike threat was to force lawmakers back into special session later this year to consider raising taxes. Last month, Speaker of the House Jim Barker ruled out consideration of any tax increases this year, noting that the state had enacted major tax hikes in 1984, 1985, and 1987.

Oklahoma's regular legislative session ends next month. The union's board is to expected reach a decision on the proposed walkout by June 20.

The sparring between the union and the legislature is the latest in a school-funding battle that has been waged for much of the decade, as the collapse of the oil and agricultural industries has brought hard times to Oklahoma.

According to Mr. Johnson, the state's school-aid situation is "deplorable."

"It's grim," he said. "The teachers are finally fed up with it."

Union officials offer a long list of statistics to back up their claims.

Since 1982, they say, Oklahoma has dropped from 25th in the nation to 46th in per-pupil spending, and to 48th place in average teacher salary.

The state was one of only two that reduced education funding over the past six years, Mr. Johnson said. Some 4,000 teachers and staff members have been laid off, and many suburban and urban districts face fines for violating class-size restrictions in the early grades.

Eighty percent of the the state's school districts do not offer physics or trigonometry, Mr. Johnson said, and 60 percent do not offer a foreign language. In addition, he said, although legislators mandated last year that 75 percent of the increase in fiscal 1989 school aid be used for teacher salaries, about a third of the state's 36,000 teachers did not get raises.

According to Mr. Johnson, the union's request that the state add $600 million to its current $816-million school-aid budget would "at least get us competitive with other states in the region."

Lawmakers, however, are considering an increase of about $57 million, and Gov. Henry Bellmon has proposed raising aid by $81 million.

Shortly after the oea assembly voted to authorize a strike, Mr. Bellmon noted that his budget proposal would raise funding for schools by 10 percent.

"If the legislature approves the budget that was submitted earlier, I feel the 'significant steps' will have occurred," he said. "Once teachers understand these facts, I'm sure they will not take steps to disrupt the education of Oklahoma's children."

The association previously had criticized Mr. Bellmon's budget plans. It also expressed opposition to a Senate measure that would give counties the option of increasing local property taxes, adopting an income-tax surcharge, or increasing the sales tax to raise new revenues for education.

Mr. Johnson said the so-called "triple option" measure would promote inequities among districts because wealthier systems could raise more revenue than poorer districts from any of the options.

The union's strike-preparation action prompted the House to approve by voice vote a measure that would clearly prohibit the teachers from striking, staging a walkout, or otherwise withholding services.

"Basically, this just makes it clear that teacher strikes in Oklahoma are illegal under any circumstance," Joe Heaton, the House minority leader and sponsor of the bill, said last week.

Current Oklahoma law prohibits strikes by public employees that result from disagreements over collective bargaining. However, a lawyer for the union contends that because teachers would be striking against the legislature, and not school boards, the job action would be legal.

Both Mr. Heaton, a Republican, and Democratic leaders argue that Oklahoma's school-finance problems stem from a lack of local funding effort. Although the state ranks ninth in the nation in terms of state education support, it falls near the bottom of national rankings when local aid is added to the figures.

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